Culture & Conversation

Fat Cows and Mad Cows

All is not well at the Edinburgh Fringe. As in North America, there is considerable discontent amongst artists on the street regarding an increasingly corporate festival. It seems that most artists go into an unreasonable amount of debt to play at the Fringe. At the same time a deceptive new system – the re-branded “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” –  steers audiences and critics to a small area comprising four venues (Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, and Assembly) where  comedians with deep pockets are trying to make it big. It’s near Bristo Square, a place with an obnoxious amount of visual pollution, including a giant inflatable upside-down cow.

With any semblance of balance gone, artists are complaining that the Fringe has “lost its edge.” The Guardian reported that the Fringe “has become an angrily disputed territory, so threatened by commercialism, some believe, that the future of the entire annual international event is in danger.”

According to veteran Tommy Sheppard, who now runs  comedy venues at the Fringe, “The ‘pay-to-play’ system means that the rich kids always win. No matter how funny working-class kids are, if they can’t ask mum and dad to hand over five grand, then they are not going to be able to come up here to perform… As a venue we want to share the risk with them.”

Interestingly, while there is no infringement festival here yet, there is a movement called Free Fringe that encompasses three distinct non-corporate Fringe Festivals, including the beloved Forest Fringe in a recently re-opened venue called the Forest Café, which is located in a rather non-descript building just around the corner from our lodgings on Riego Street.


I learned about this fascinating dynamic by chatting with artists on the street, many of whom were promoting their shows.  Fringe veteran Benjamin Crellin overheard my conversation with another artist, and chimed in to give me a comprehensive picture of what is happening.

He plays at the Free Fringe now and explained that, outside the Forest Fringe, there are two competing versions: the PHB Free Fringe (named after organizer Peter Buckley Hill) and the regular version (run by Alex Petty). According to Crelin, the two organizations are the result of a philosophical and organizational split, and do not get along.

Not to be upstaged by the word on the street, the World Fringe Congress also began officially today in an ancient Veterinary College-cum-Fringe venue called Summerhall, on the boundary of a massive park called The Meadows.




I now have a stack of infringement materials including a small booklet, the ethical sponsorship criteria, and even an article from The Watch about the Halifax Fringe threatening legal action against students at King’s College, Nova Scotia, for attempting Fringe theatre without their permission (the students wisely switched to the infringement model).

Meanwhile, the World Fringe Congress kicked off with a keynote speech by Ruth MacKenzie, director of the London 2012 Festival, an event where she curated artistic works as part of a “Cultural Olympiad”. She joked about the irony of giving a keynote about the usually open-accesss Fringe while she curated works for a living. She spoke about the importance of our work as leaders of Fringe Festivals.

At a reception following the address I met all sorts of Fringe delegates from around the world, with almost 50 festivals now represented. As representative of the Montreal Infringement, I was be the only Canadian festival present. The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF), who has locked the word “Fringe” into a trademark in Canada, was not in attendance despite having over a dozen Canadian “Fringe” festivals and several American ones. The only CAFF representative was their American vice-president, from the Orlando Fringe.

Among delegates from other Fringe Festivals all over the world, many represented new Fringe Festivals, demonstrating that there is an explosion of new festivals being created right across the globe, especially in the United States and other parts of Europe, such as Amsterdam, Stockholm and Poland.

Following the reception, we were invited to a night of up-and-coming comedians at the Dirty Martini Lounge, presented by the Fringe Comedy Academy. While the jokers were pretty funny, I was exaughsted. I left after tthe first set, hell bent on a good night’s rest. Wandering the dark, winding streets of Edinburgh on the way home I realized  this could well be a  game-changing visit: if only a handful of people embrace the infringement concept, it’s quite possible Edinburgh will have its own infringement festival in the near future!

Part 2 of a series. Donovan King, co-founder of the Infringement Festival and long-time critic of corporate arts funding, has been invited to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as a representative of the Infringement Festivals. An off-off-event he found in Montreal, it has spread to many other cities. Watch Rover for Donovan’s continuing coverage.

Read Part 1 here.





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